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Overcoming the Impossible - From 14 Peaks to Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Heroism: econsists of putting others first, even at your own peril. The noun heroism comes from the Greek hērōs, which referred to a demigod. As someone who shows great courage and valor is referred to as a hero, their actions are considered to be acts of heroism.

I recently watched the fantastic Netflix documentary - 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible which details a team of Nepalese high altitude mountaineers' quest to summit the tallest mountain peaks in the world in only 7 months. I was exceptionally inspired by the audacity of their mission as well as the fact that they had something significant to prove coming from a traditionally disenfranchised background. But led by a dynamic charismatic individual they made the impossible possible.

I couldn't help but compare their journey to those of us working in the corporate social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion business - we are each climbing peaks - theirs physical - ours conceptual and ethical. The metaphor of mountaineering has long been used to typify a significant goal or struggle - Martin Luther King Jr. used mountains in many of his most significant speeches. But seeing how this group of intrepid explorers achieved their goal was more the point I took away. They showed and proved. They didn't wait for permission. They leaned on their collective experience, capability, and enthusiasm for the task at hand. And most importantly, they never gave up.

To achieve the peaks of a corporate world where injustice is eradicated, inequity is eliminated, diversity is expanded, and inclusion is enhanced we will need to heed the example of this documentary. We need to do more together. We need to support each other. And we must never stop until the goal is achieved.

With that in mind, here is my unpacking of the experience of the documentary in the effort to pass on the inspiration I absorbed. This is filtered through the primary subject of the documentary, Nirmal Purja - a soldier, son, team leader, and death-zone seeker.

The Soldier

Nirmal Purja's (or Nims') father and older brothers were some of the few to call themselves members of the Brigade of Ghurkas - elite fighters from Nepal consigned to the British Army since the 1950's. Their respective military careers allowed their baby brother to attend English boarding school. This educational boost would come in handy as he also embarked on a career with the Ghurkas in 2003. His first seemingly impossible feat was becoming the first Ghurka accepted into the British Royal Navy's Special Boat Service (comparable to the US Navy's Seal Team Six) in 2009. The special unit is predominantly made up of Royal Marines Commandos, and specializes in classified undercover raids. Along with the SAS, the SBS is regarded as the most elite unit in the British military.

In order for him to climb this first career mountain - which is arguably as challenging as any of the above 8,000-meter behemoth's he would later ascend, Nims would need to lean on his unique spirit of resilience, persistence, and overwhelming optimism. This optimism is what strikes viewers introduced to Nims in the documentary. The documentary traces Nims and his team of Nepalese sherpas' quest to climb all 14 super 8,000-meter mountains in the world (Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, K2, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu, Manaslu, and Shishapangma) in merely 7 months. For reference, the previous record holder took 7 years to successfully do so.

Nims relatively happy nature belies the steely will he possesses. Underneath all the smiles, dancing, and hugging is a person whose ability has been forged in the crucible of terrible conflict and struggle. He is a dreamer with the practicality of military tactician. While on assignment, he was nearly killed when a sniper's bullet (aimed for his head) collided with the butt of his rifle. As the breadwinner of his family, he had to learn to balance military duty, familial responsibility, and a burgeoning passion for high-altitude climbing.

While in the special unit, he developed his love of mountaineering, even specializing in cold weather warfare. While on leave in 2012, he learned how to climb and summited the 6,119-metre Lobuche East with his guide shortly after. Then he began tackling Everest in earnest. Summiting for the first time in 2014 and then leading an expedition of Ghurkas up to the peak a year later. His climbing confidence building as his military exploits wound down some, Nims began to dream even bigger.

The Death Zone

The first time Nims saved a fellow climber was during that initial ascent to Everest in 2014. This led him to the realization that not only was the job about ascending peaks, but also never leaving anyone behind. In the documentary, Nims and his crew embarked on two separate death-defying lifesaving missions while chasing their own objective of racing up perilous peaks. While most climbers were in it for individual glory, Nims knew that his new passion and vocation extended far beyond himself.

He became addicted to what climber's call "the death zone" - or altitudes above a certain point where the pressure of oxygen cannot sustain human life for a significant time span. This is why plane cabins are pressurized. According to Wikipedia, at or above the 8,000 meters above sea level altitude "additional red blood cells are manufactured; the heart beats faster; non-essential body functions are suppressed, food digestion efficiency declines (as the body suppresses the digestive system in favor of increasing its cardiopulmonary reserves);[9] and one breathes more deeply and more frequently. But acclimatization requires days or even weeks. Failure to acclimatize may result in altitude sickness, including high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or cerebral edema (HACE)."

During his mission, Nims was afflicted with high altitude cerebral edema, but still managed to save another climber also suffering the same symptoms. In a telling moment in the documentary, during his preparations for Project Possible - he was being tested in London at the Altitude Center. It was there that he gained confirmation that his fitness level for such high-altitude excursions was, in fact, above the curve. He possessed a natural physiological advantage – he could ascend and adjust to altitude faster than most mountaineers.

With his already burgeoning confidence reconfirmed by clear capability, he was ready to gain the approval of the only person that truly mattered, his mother.

The Son

Despite having naturalized to the UK, Nims has never forgotten where he came from. His mother was in declining health during the filming of the documentary and it was clear how important their relationship is. Nims was the servant leader of his family for some time, but knew he had to pursue his new calling. He went to his mother, seeking her understanding and approval. She co-signed the quest and urged him on at every step - even after nearly perishing due to a heart attack. She was the battery in his back energizing, focusing, and reminding him what he is doing all this for.

Still, Project Possible did lead to some estrangement with his brother, Kamal, who did not want Nims to give up his lucrative military pension to pursue what he considered a frivolous, selfish quest for glory. They did not speak for several months after Nims left the military. But their duty as sons brought them back together when their mother fell ill. Eventually, the entire family would come to embrace Nims' goals and to understand the broader importance of what he was trying to accomplish.

Nims is also the cherished son of his impoverished community. They cheered on his exploits and further accelerated his stamina and will for the task at hand. His quest changed things for his community forever - it put them on the map and will provide for them long after his legend has faded. This is why he was so passionate about pursuing this mission with an all-Nepalese team - to provide them with the exposure they would never receive as elite climbers otherwise.

But he couldn't just select any team - he needed the right combination of skills, attitude, fortitude, and experience.

The Team

If it weren't for Nepalese sherpas - no one would have ever scaled Mount Everest. They go up the mountain first, checking conditions, setting the ropes and ladders, placing oxygen at strategic points. They also lead the rescue missions when some wayward mountaineer loses their way. Because Everest is literally in their backyard, their expertise and labor is fundamental to success.

But there are very few Nepalese owned and run mountain guiding companies despite their knowledge, experience, and capability. Tourism is Nepal's second biggest export, and mountaineering accounts for a significant chunk of the sector, with a record 381 climbers in pre-pandemic 2019, according to Nepal's Department of Tourism. The mountain contributes about $13 million a year to tourism income, industry experts say - but the industry is dominated by Western enterprises who traditionally have been superior at recruiting high paying customers to the region and then leveraging local labor to get their customers to the summits.

Enter Nims and Project Possible which was about much more than setting a record - it was about shattering ceilings and opening a flood gate of new opportunities for a generation of Sherpas no longer content to play in the background. Which is why Nims was so precise in the selection of his team for the quest. He decided that a core team of five members would be the minimum crew needed. They would carry all their own kit - ropes, ladders, oxygen, tents, food, and water as they ascended. After careful consideration, Nims selected Mingma Gyabu “David” Sherpa: a Nepalese mountaineer and rescue climber who was the youngest person to climb all 14 eight-thousanders, and held the Guinness World Record for "Fastest time to climb Everest and K2"; Lakpa Dendi (Zekson Son), Geljen Sherpa, and Tensi Kasang.

They divided the quest into three phases - Spring, Summer, and Fall and meticulously planned each trek. Their objective was speed and accuracy - they would climb as fast as humanly possible while remaining safe and they would celebrate every chance they got along the way. Despite significant odds - funding, governmental permission to climb, personal tragedy, near death experiences - they accomplished their goal with nearly a month to spare. And when they were done, Nims declared Mission Achieved and then began to dream about the next groundbreaking pursuit for him and his team.

The Takeaway for J.E.D.I. Practitioners

When I interact these days with those working in the J.E.D.I. space, I experience their fatigue, pessimism, and general discontent with the status quo. It seems like the quest we have chosen may be insurmountable and yet we must keep climbing because up is the only way to changing things in a sustainable fashion. Still, many of us are lacking what Nims possesses in spades - unbridled enthusiasm, passion, and the will to keep pushing forward day after day. We view J.E.D.I. work as a burden, not as a vocation and this mindset may be the biggest barrier to achieving our ultimate goals.

My takeaways from the documentary were quite straightforward and aligned with Nims' approach to high-altitude mountaineering.

  1. We must gain enough experience and capability to have the confidence to chase these peaks of change as he did during his time as a soldier.

  2. We have to come alive in the spaces where most people quit - i.e. in the "death zones" of withering executive enthusiasm, political will, and apathy.

  3. We must balance the competing priorities of our jobs, families, and responsibilities and do whatever is necessary to keep our buckets full for the work ahead - just as Nims balanced his roles as husband, son, bread-winner, and dreamer.

  4. We must not climb alone - finding the right team of truly like-minded spirits is as fundamental to success as the quest itself - so pick the right people as Nims did.

I hope you watch this astounding documentary and are as inspired as I am. I am as committed as ever to the Project Possible quest of creating a corporate world where justice is secured, equity is the norm, diversity is the minimum, and inclusion is a given for all.

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